Can doctors resist the temptation of money?

That’s a tall order for many American physicians.

Atul Gawande recently addressed the graduating class of the University of Chicago medical school. In his speech, which is an extension of his celebrated New Yorker piece, he looks at so-called “positive deviants,” or doctors who practice higher value, higher quality care, than everyone else.

What makes these doctors so special? In essence, they have to “resist the tendency built into every financial incentive in our system to see patients as a revenue stream.”

Indeed, “These are not the doctors who instruct their secretary to have patients calling with follow-up questions schedule an office visit because insurers don’t pay for phone calls. These are not the doctors who direct patients to their side-business doing Botox injections for cash or to the imaging center that they own. They do not focus, the way business people do, on maximizing their high-margin work and minimizing their low-margin work.”

Unfortunately, most American doctors fail to resist the allure of money. In some cases, it’s greed. But in many others, patients and business have to be intertwined simply to keep the doors open. Doctors cannot practice quality medicine while bankrupt.

Changing physician behavior needs to be accompanied by fundamentally modifying the incentives that influence doctors. Without radical physician payment reform, Dr. Gawande can implore future doctors to fight the financial incentives all he wants, but most will realize that resistance alone will be futile.

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